On November 27, 1965, the new president of SDS,
Carl Oglesby, spoke at another March on Washington. Responding to Paul
Potter's call to "name the system," Carl went to the heart of contradiction
between America's revolutionary birth and its present foreign policy.
CARL OGLESBY'S SPEECH
Let Us Shape the Future
Seven months ago at the April March on
Washington, Paul Potter, then President of Students for a Democratic
Society, stood in approximately this spot and said that we must name the
system that creates and sustains the war in Vietnam - name it, describe it,
analyze it, understand it, and change it.
Today I will try to
name it - to suggest an analysis which, to be quite frank, may disturb some
of you — and to suggest what changing it may require of us.
We are here again to protest a growing war.
Since it is a very bad war, we acquire the habit of thinking it must be
caused by very bad men. But we only conceal reality, I think, to denounce on
such grounds the menacing coalition of industrial and military power, or the
brutality of the blitzkrieg we are waging against Vietnam, or the ominous
signs around us that heresy may soon no longer be permitted. We must simply
observe, and quite plainly say, that this coalition, this blitzkrieg, and
this demand for acquiescence are creatures, all of them, of a Government
that since 1932 has considered itself to he fundamentally liberal.
The original commitment in Vietnam was made by
President Truman, a mainstream liberal. It was seconded by President
Eisenhower, a moderate liberal. It was intensified by the late President
Kennedy, a flaming liberal. Think of the men who now engineer that war —
those who study the maps, give the commands, push the buttons, and tally the
dead: Bundy, McNamara, Rusk, Lodge, Goldberg, the President himself. They
are not moral monsters. They are all honorable men. They are all liberals.
But so, I'm sure, are many of us who are here
today in protest. To understand the war, then, it seems necessary to take a
closer look at this American liberalism. Maybe we are in for some surprises.
Maybe we have here two quite different liberalisms: one authentically
humanist; the other not so human at all.
Not long ago I considered myself a liberal and
if, someone had asked me what I meant by that, I'd perhaps have quoted
Thomas Jefferson or Thomas Paine, who first made plain our nation's
unprovisional commitment to human rights. But what do you think would happen
if these two heroes could sit down now for a chat with President Johnson and
They would surely talk of the Vietnam war. Our
dead revolutionaries would soon wonder why their country was fighting
against what appeared to be a revolution. The living liberals would hotly
deny that it is one: there are troops coming in from outside, the rebels get
arms from other countries, most of the people are not on their side, and
they practice terror against their own. Therefore: not a revolution.
What would our dead revolutionaries answer? They
might say: "What fools and bandits, sirs, you make then of us. Outside help?
Do you remember Lafayette? Or the three thousand British freighters the
French navy sunk for our side? Or the arms and men, we got from France and
Spain? And what's this about terror? Did you never hear what we did to our
own Loyalists? Or about the thousands of rich American Tories who fled for
their lives to Canada? And as for popular support, do you not know that we
had less than one-third of our people with us? That, in fact, the colony of
New York recruited more troops for the British than for the revolution?
Should we give it all back?"
Revolutions do not take place in velvet boxes.
They never have. It is only the poets who make them lovely. What the
National Liberation Front is fighting in Vietnam is a complex and vicious
war. This war is also a revolution, as honest a revolution as you can find
anywhere in history. And this is a fact which all our intricate official
denials will never change.
But it doesn't make any difference to our
leaders anyway. Their aim in Vietnam is really much simpler than this
implies. It is to safeguard what they take to be American interests around
the world against revolution or revolutionary change, which they always call
Communism - as if that were that. In the case of Vietnam, this interest is,
first, the principle that revolution shall not be tolerated anywhere, and
second, that South Vietnam shall never sell its rice to China - or even to
There is simply no such thing now, for us, as a
just revolution - never mind that for two‑thirds of the world's people the
Twentieth Century might as well be the Stone Age; never mind the melting
poverty and hopelessness that are the basic facts of life for most modern
men; and never mind that for these millions there is now an increasingly
perceptible relationship between their sorrow and our contentment.
Can we understand why the Negroes of Watts
rebelled? Then why do we need a devil theory to explain the rebellion of the
South Vietnamese? Can we understand the oppression in Mississippi, or the
anguish that our Northern ghettoes makes epidemic? Then why can't we see
that our proper human struggle is not with Communism or revolutionaries, but
with the social desperation that drives good men to violence, both here and
To be sure, we have been most generous with our
aid, and in Western Europe, a mature industrial society, that aid worked.
But there are always political and financial strings. And we have never
shown ourselves capable of allowing others to make those traumatic
institutional changes that are often the prerequisites of progress in
colonial societies. For all our official feeling for the millions who are
enslaved to what we so self‑righteously call the yoke of Communist tyranny,
we make no real effort at all to crack through the much more vicious
right‑wing tyrannies that our businessmen traffic with and our nation
profits from every day. And for all our cries about the international Red
conspiracy to take over the world, we take only pride in the fact of our six
thousand military bases on foreign soil.
We gave Rhodesia a grave look just now - but we
keep on buying her chromium, which is cheap because black slave labor mines
We deplore the racism of Verwoert's fascist
South Africa - but our banks make big loans to that country and our private
technology makes it a nuclear power.
We are saddened and puzzled by random backpage
stories of revolt in this or that Latin American state - but are convinced
by a few pretty photos in the Sunday supplement that things are getting
better, that the world is coming our way, that change from disorder can be
orderly, that our benevolence will pacify the distressed, that our might
will intimidate the angry.
Optimists, may I suggest that these are quite
unlikely fantasies? They are fantasies because we have lost that mysterious
social desire for human equity that from time to time has given us genuine
moral drive. We have become a nation of young, bright-eyed, hard-hearted,
slim-waisted, bullet-headed make-out artists. A nation - may I say it? - of
You say I am being hard? Only think.
This country, with its thirty-some years of
liberalism can send 200,000 young men to Vietnam to kill and die in the most
dubious of wars, but it cannot get 100 voter registrars to go into
What do you make of it?
The financial burden of the war obliges us to
cut millions from an already pathetic War on Poverty budget. But in almost
the same breath, Congress appropriates one hundred forty million dollars for
the Lockheed and Boeing companies to compete with each other on the
supersonic transport project‑that Disneyland creation that will cost us all
about two billion dollars before it's done.
What do you make of it?
Many of us have been earnestly resisting for
some years now the idea of putting atomic weapons into West German hands, an
action that would perpetuate the division of Europe and thus the Cold War.
Now just this week we find out that, with the meagerest of security systems,
West Germany has had nuclear weapons in her hands for the past six years.
What do you make of it?
Some will make of it that I overdraw the matter.
Many will ask: What about the other side? To be sure, there is the bitter
ugliness of Czechoslovakia, Poland, those infamous Russian tanks in the
streets of Budapest. But my anger only rises to hear some say that sorrow
cancels sorrow, or that this one's shame deposits in that one's account the
right to shamefulness.
And others will make of it that I sound mighty
anti-American. To these, I say: Don't blame me for that! Blame those who
mouthed my liberal values and broke my American heart.
Just who might they be, by the way? Let's take a
brief factual inventory of the latter-day Cold War.
In 1953 our Central Intelligence Agency managed
to overthrow Mossadegh in Iran, the complaint being his neutralism in the
Cold War and his plans to nationalize the country's oil resources to improve
his people's lives. Most evil aims, most evil man. In his place we put in
General Zahedi, a World War II Nazi collaborator. New arrangements on Iran's
oil gave twenty-five year leases on forty per cent of it to three U.S.
firms, one of which was Gulf Oil. The C.I.A.'s leader for this coup was
Kermit Roosevelt. In 1960, Kermit Roosevelt became a vice president of Gulf
In 1954, the democratically elected Arbenz of
Guatemala wanted to nationalize a portion of United Fruit Company's
plantations in his country, land he needed badly for a modest program of
agrarian reform. His government was overthrown in a C.I.A.-supported
rightwing coup. The following year, Gen. Walter Bedell Smith, director of
the C.I.A. when the Guatemala venture was being planned, joined the board of
directors of the United Fruit Company.
Comes 1960 and Castro cries we are about to
invade Cuba. The Administration sneers, "poppycock," and we Americans
believe it. Comes 1961 and the invasion. Comes with it the awful realization
that the United States Government had lied.
Comes 1962 and the missile crisis, and our
Administration stands prepared to fight global atomic war on the curious
principle that another state does not have the right to its own foreign
Comes 1963 and British Guiana where Cheddi Jagan
wants independence from England and a labor law modeled on the Wagner Act.
And Jay Lovestone, the AFL-CIO foreign policy chief, acting, as always,
quite independently of labor's rank and file, arranges with our Government
to finance an eleven-week dock strike that brings Jagan down, ensuring that
the state will remain British Guiana, and that any workingman who
wants a wage better than fifty cents a day is a dupe of Communism.
Comes 1964. Two weeks after Undersecretary
Thomas Mann announces that we have abandoned the Alianza's principle of no
aid to tyrants, Brazil's Goulart is overthrown by the vicious right‑winger,
Ademar Barros, supported by a show of American gunboats at Rio de Janeiro.
Within twenty four hours, the new head of state, Mazzilli, receives a
congratulatory wire from our President.
Comes 1965. The Dominican Republic. Rebellion in
the streets. We scurry to the spot with twenty thousand neutral Marines and
our neutral peacemakers - like Ellsworth Bunker Jr., Ambassador to the
Organization of American States. Most of us know that our neutral Marines
fought openly on the side of the junta, a fact that the Administration still
denies. But how many also know that what was at stake was our new Caribbean
Sugar Bowl? That this same neutral peacemaking Bunker is a board member and
stock owner of the National Sugar Refining Company, a firm his father
founded in the good old days, and one which has a major interest in
maintaining the status quo in the Dominican Republic? Or that the
President's close personal friend and advisor, our new Supreme Court Justice
Abe Fortas, has sat for the past 19 years on the board of the Sucrest
Company, which imports blackstrap molasses from the Dominican Republic? Or
that the rhetorician of corporate liberalism and the late President
Kennedy's close friend Adolf Berle, was chairman of that same board? Or that
our roving ambassador Averill Harriman's brother Roland is on the board of
National Sugar? Or that our former ambassador to the Dominican Republic,
Joseph Farland, is a board member of the South Puerto Rico Sugar Co., which
owns two hundred and seventy‑five thousand acres of rich land in the
Dominican Republic and is the largest employer on the island - at about one
dollar a day?
Neutralists! God save the hungry people of the
world from such neutralists!
We do not say these men are evil. We say,
rather, that good men can be divided from their compassion by the
institutional system that inherits us all. Generation in and out, we are put
to use. People become instruments. Generals do not hear the screams of the
bombed; sugar executives do not see the misery of the cane cutters: for to
do so is to be that much less the general, that much less the executive.
The foregoing facts of recent history describe
one main aspect of the estate of Western liberalism. Where is our American
humanism here? What went wrong?
Let's stare our
situation coldly in the face. All of us are born to the colossus of history,
our American corporate system - in many ways an awesome organism. There is
one fact that describes it: With about five per cent of the world's people,
we consume about half the world's goods. We take a richness that is in good
part not our own, and we put it in our pockets, our garages, our
split-levels, our bellies, and our futures.
On the face of it, it is a crime that so
few should have so much at the expense of so many. Where is the moral
imagination so abused as to call this just? Perhaps many of us feel a bit
uneasy in our sleep. We are not, after all, a cruel people. And perhaps we
don't really need this super-dominance that deforms others. But what can we
do? The investments are made. The financial ties are established. The plants
abroad are built. Our system exists. One is swept up into it. How
intolerable - to be born moral, but addicted to a stolen and maybe surplus
luxury. Our goodness threatens to become counterfeit before our eyes -
unless we change. But change threatens us with uncertainty - at least.
Our problem, then, is to justify this system and
give its theft another name - to make kind and moral what is neither, to
perform some alchemy with language that will make this injustice seem a most
A hard problem. But the Western democracies, in
the heyday of their colonial expansionism, produced a hero worthy of the
Its name was free enterprise, and its partner
was an illiberal liberalism that said to the poor and the
dispossessed: What we acquire of your resources we repay in civilization:
the white man's burden. But this was too poetic. So a much more hardheaded
theory was produced. This theory said that colonial status is in fact a boon to
the colonized. We give them technology and bring them into modem times.
But this deceived no one but ourselves. We were
delighted with this new theory. The poor saw in it merely an admission that
their claims were irrefutable. They stood up to us, without gratitude. We
were shocked - but also confused, for the poor seemed again to be right. How
long is it going to be the case, we wondered, that the poor will be right
and the rich will be wrong?
Liberalism faced a crisis. In the face of the
collapse of the European empires, how could it continue, to hold together,
our twin need for richness and righteousness? How can we continue to sack
the ports of Asia and still dream of Jesus?
The challenge was met with a most ingenious
solution: the ideology of anti-Communism. This was the bind: we cannot call
revolution bad, because we started that way ourselves, and because it is all
too easy to see why the dispossessed should rebel. So we will call
revolution Communism. And we will reserve for ourselves the right to say
what Communism means. We take note of revolution's enormities, wrenching
them where necessary from their historical context and often exaggerating
them, and say: Behold, Communism is a bloodbath. We take note of those
reactionaries who stole the revolution, and say: Behold, Communism is a
betrayal of the people. We take note of the revolution's need to consolidate
itself, and say: Behold, Communism is a tyranny.
It has been all these things, and it will be
these things again, and we will never be at a loss for those tales of
atrocity that comfort us so in our self-righteousness. Nuns will be raped
and bureaucrats will be disembowelled. Indeed, revolution is a fury.
For it is a letting loose of outrages pent up sometimes over centuries. But
the more brutal and longer-lasting the suppression of this energy, all the
more ferocious will be its explosive release.
Far from helping Americans deal with this truth,
the anti‑Communist ideology merely tries to disguise it so that things may
stay the way they are. Thus, it depicts our presence in other lands not as a
coercion, but a protection. It allows us even to say that the napalm in
Vietnam is only another aspect of our humanitarian love - like those
exorcisms in the Middle Ages that so often killed the patient. So we say to
the Vietnamese peasant, the Cuban intellectual, the Peruvian worker: "You
are better dead than Red. If it hurts or if you don't understand why - sorry
This is the action of corporate liberalism.
It performs for the corporate state a function quite like what the Church
once performed for the feudal state. It seeks to justify its burdens and
protect it from change. As the Church exaggerated this office in the
Inquisition, so with liberalism in the McCarthy time - which, if it was a
reactionary phenomenon, was still made possible by our anti-communist
Let me then speak directly to humanist liberals.
If my facts are wrong, I will soon be corrected. But if they are right, then
you may face a crisis of conscience. Corporatism or humanism: which? For it
has come to that. Will you let your dreams be used? Will you be a grudging
apologist for the corporate state? Or will you help try to change it - not
in the name of this or that blueprint or ism, but in the name of simple
human decency and democracy and the vision that wise and brave men saw in
the time of our own Revolution?
And if your commitment to human values is
unconditional, then disabuse yourselves of the notion that statements will
bring change, if only the right statements can be written, or that
interviews with the mighty will bring change if only the mighty can be
reached, or that marches will bring change if only we can make them massive
enough, or that policy proposals will bring change if only we can make them
We are dealing now with a colossus that does not
want to be changed. It will not change itself. It will not cooperate with
those who want to change it. Those allies of ours in the Government - are
they really our allies? If they are, then they don't need
advice, they need constituencies; they don't need study groups, they
need a movement. And it they are not, then all the more reason
for building that movement with the most relentless conviction.
There are people in this country today who are
trying to build that movement, who aim at nothing less than a humanist
reformation. And the humanist liberals must understand that it is this
movement with which their own best hopes are most in tune. We radicals know
the same history that you liberals know, and we can understand your
occasional cynicism, exasperation, and even distrust. But we ask you to put
these aside and help us risk a leap. Help us find enough time for the
enormous work that needs doing here. Help us build. Help us shape the future
in the name of plain human hope.